Protest is a powerful force for progress

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on June 7, 2020.

In January 1909, a group of notable Americans signed their names to a statement that called for a national conference focused on the civil and political rights of Black Americans. The “Call” was signed by the likes of W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells, and it contended that the upcoming centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth should be a day of “taking stock of the nation’s progress since 1865.”

“How far has [the nation] lived up to the obligations imposed upon it by the Emancipation Proclamation? How far has it gone in assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution?” asked the letter.

The unfortunate answer, affirmed over a century later by the voices of thousands of Americans this past week, is clear: nowhere near far enough.

Many signatories of the “Call” would go on to form the NAACP, officially established just a few weeks later. In its 111-year history, the NAACP evolved from a relatively small association focused on litigation against Jim Crow laws, into a national organization with half a million members and tangible political power.

Like many civil rights organizations, it was born from emotion, specifically anger, frustration and disappointment in the deferred promise of 1865 (the passage of the 13th amendment). But over the years, civil rights leaders like Dubois and Wells channelled that emotion into positive action, without which the United States would be less free, less equal and less just a society than it is today.

As protests spread this week across the United States and here at home — protests that have jolted so many of us out of our privileged complacency — it’s important to remember the legacy of civil rights organizations and their roots in protest.

The simple fact is that direct action works: from the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century to the Stonewall riots and the origins of Pride, protest and civil unrest has long served as a catalyst for important change. The protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police are no different.

Consider just how much the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved since its inception in 2013. What began as a hashtag has grown into an international phenomenon, the animating spirit of the largest protests seen in nearly 50 years. While its actions were once the subject of controversy, corporations and brands now eagerly endorse their message.

Along the way, Black Lives Matter has remained steadfastly committed to its roots as a protest movement. Local chapters of the movement have now, for seven years, led protests in response to far too many deaths, all too similar to George Floyd’s. With each action, the loose network envisioned by the movement’s founders has grown stronger.

The natural question to ask next is what happens to the Black Lives Matter movement from here? Perhaps the movement will go the way of Pride: corporatized and mainstream, far now from its roots in protest. Like Pride, victory here may not ultimately mean a set of policy changes, so much as a shifting of the Overton window — a victory of the public sense of what’s possible and expected.

But regardless of where the movement ultimately goes, this is coming to a head. We are experiencing a once-in-a-generation paroxysm about the health and safety of Black communities, prompted by both the coronavirus and the latest instances of police brutality.

It is not my place to say what the demands of the protestors should be or what shape the movement should take next, but I feel it would be a tragedy to move away from the basis of the movement in protest.

After all, we have seen, again and again, how the courage and leadership of organizers and protestors alike have sustained the movement through years of growth.

That said, any meaningful, sustainable change that comes next will depend on all of us — how our expectations, our behaviour and our attitudes evolve. And that means, first and foremost, looking inward and addressing, in the words of James Baldwin, the “many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.”